By Olive Mukahirwa
Two weeks after Pope Francis concluded his peace visit in Africa, the heads of governments on the African continent held a two-day meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union (AU). The leaders demanded that those fighting in Eastern Congo lay down their arms — but the conflict seems far from ending.
Angolan President João Lourenço, and former president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta – both mediators in the talks between M23 rebel groups and the Congolese government – were tasked with following up on the demand for peace that was made in Addis Ababa.
The spokesperson of the M23 group, Major Willy Ngoma, told the BBC that M23 has never refused to implement a peace agreement. He accused the Congolese government of being unwilling to end the war. Some Congolese politicians have financial interests in the war, he claimed.
On February 17, Amnesty International published a report accusing M23 of killing at least 20 men and raping an unspecified number of women and girls. The M23 fighters categorically denied the allegations.
Fighting continued throughout the pope’s four-day visit to DR Congo and South Sudan. On February 5, Pope Francis concluded his Africa trip and called on the world to respect the continent and on religious leaders in African countries to put effort into reconciling people. The pontiff said he was deeply moved by the testimony of those affected by the years-long war in eastern DR Congo. He said that their tears are his and their sorrow is his, too.
From DR Congo, Pope Francis continued on to South Sudan. This was the first time he had ever visited South Sudan, the youngest country in the world. South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but after independence a war erupted between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, who was his vice president between 2012 and 2018. During the war 380,000 people were killed, and 2.2 million people fled their own homes, according to the United Nations. Many left the country and have not returned. While a peace accord was signed in 2018, violent clashes continue. Between August and December 2022, more than 20,000 people had been displaced from their homes and 166 people had been killed as a result of violence.
The 85-year-old pontiff was welcomed at the airport in Juba by the president, Salva Kiir. Pope Francis asked the leaders of the Catholic Church to raise their voices for peace and reconciliation.
“No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it, no more leaving your people a thirst for peace. No more destruction: it is time to build! Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!” the pope said, addressing the leaders of South Sudan.